The Admiral Essen frigate leaves to join a naval exercise of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

The Admiral Essen frigate leaves to join a naval exercise of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russian Defence Ministry \ TASS via Getty Images

How Irish Fishermen Took on the Russian Fleet and Won

The action illustrates how the private sector can help governments respond to Russian gray-zone aggression.

For months—years, in fact—the learned men and women in the corridors of Western powers have been putting their heads together to stop Russia from acting provocatively. Think-tankers such as me have written endless op-eds, reports, and books for the same purpose. We have, alas, been depressingly unsuccessful. A few days ago, another group altogether showed how it’s done. 

When Russia announced its intention to conduct a naval exercise off the coast of Ireland, Irish fishermen came up with a deterrent so surprising and so powerful that the Russian navy moved the exercise. We should learn from them.

Last Sunday, the government of Ireland passed the word that starting on Feb. 3, Russia would hold a naval exercise in Ireland’s exclusive economic zone. Irish officials declared the exercise “not welcome and not wanted,” but had clearly been unable to convince their Russian counterparts to hold it elsewhere. Indeed, despite continuing to plead with Russia to move the exercise – noting, for example, the area’s unique marine wildlife – the Irish government got nowhere. As Russia’s ambassador to Ireland, Yuri Filatov, said last week, “There is nothing to be disturbed, concerned, or anguished about and I have extensively explained that to our Irish colleagues.” 

The exercise was terrible news for Ireland’s fishermen, who stood to lose one million tons of fishery, said Patrick Murphy, the chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation. “This is the livelihoods of fishermen and fishing families all around the coastline here,” Murphy told RTE radio. “It’s our waters. Can you imagine if the Russians were applying to go onto the mainland of Ireland to go launching rockets, how far would they get with that?” 

Murphy said the fishermen would be making a coordinated effort to head off the Russian fleet. “Our boats will be going out to that area on the first of February to go fishing,” he told Politico on Jan. 25. “When one boat needs to return to port, another will head out so there is a continuous presence on the water. If that is in proximity to where the [military] exercise is going, we are expecting that the Russian naval services abide by the anti-collision regulations.” By constantly having their boats in the exercise waters, the fishermen would—peacefully—prevent the Russians from conducting the exercise.

Their action worked. On Jan. 29, Filatov issued a statement announcing that Russia’s defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, had decided, “as a gesture of goodwill, to relocate the exercises by the Russian Navy, planned for February 3-8, outside the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ), with the aim not to hinder fishing activities by the Irish vessels in the traditional fishing areas.” 

The Irish fishermen didn’t just humiliate Moscow: they also put Western capitals’ deterrence efforts to shame. And they did so by announcing asymmetric deterrence. The Irishmen would clearly not been able to sail to key Russian fishing waters to take revenge by harming fish there, and doing so would have at any rate been provocative. But they could go about their peaceful business in the Irish EEZ in such large numbers that the Russians would struggle to carry out their exercise. It was an action more creative than the threats Western governments typically think up – and that creativity created such a surprise factor that the Russians had to back down. Yes, it is possible that the Irish government made concessions to Moscow that the Ambassador’s statement didn’t mention, but it stands to reason that if there were any concessions he would have mentioned them so as to minimize Russia’s humiliation.

In deploying this asymmetric deterrence, the fishermen unwittingly created a template Western governments could study, adapt, and adopt. In The Defender’s Dilemma and elsewhere, I’ve proposed that Western governments should team up with their private sectors to create powerful deterrents. If, say, China continues to coerce Western companies, Western governments could collectively team up with their countries’ luxury brands to threaten a luxury embargo against China. Why would Western companies want to cooperate? Because they suffer when other countries engage in coercion, IP theft, and similar practices.

Indeed, the Irish fishermen’s success should teach Western governments that clever strategy is not a government monopoly. Businesses and business associations in lots of Western countries would, I venture to suggest, put forward excellent ideas for how threatening behavior by Russia, China, and other countries can be deterred without targeted countries having to resort to the threat of military force—if governments only asked them. Governments may in fact be discovering this untapped resource: one NATO member state is, for example, in the process of setting up pioneering national-security consultation with its private sector.

In the White House, there’s a man with special fondness for Ireland: the president himself. May I humbly suggest that the Biden administration would be well-advised to issue an invitation to Patrick Murphy and his men—an invitation to thank them for preventing another standoff with Russia, and perhaps also to ask them for advice about asymmetric deterrence in other parts of the world. A reminder, and only half in jest: they’ve got a better track record than most of us.